The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Friday ruled that a lower court must reconsider whether to add a third-degree murder charge against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who is scheduled to go on trial next week for the death of George Floyd.
The ruling, coming just days before jury selection in Chauvin’s trial was set to begin Monday, also raises the possibility of a delay in the trial. The unanimous decision by the appeals court means that the trial court may again hear arguments from Chauvin and prosecutors from the Minnesota attorney general’s office over whether Chauvin should face the third-degree murder charge.
He is already facing a more serious charge of second-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter, but prosecutors have sought to add on the third-degree murder charge, which carried up to 25 years in prison and would give them an additional avenue to win a conviction.
Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, could appeal the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court. He did not respond to an inquiry about whether he would.
Third-degree murder was the first charge Chauvin faced after he was arrested in the days following Floyd’s death May 25. At the time, the charge prompted an outcry from both activists and lawyers, who said Chauvin should face a more severe charge and that a third-degree murder charge did not fit the circumstances of Floyd’s death.
Third-degree murder in Minnesota, they noted, has long been understood as an act — “evinced with a depraved mind,” according to the statute — that is dangerous to a group of people rather than one person. An often-cited example is a suspect who fires a gun randomly into a passing train or someone who drives a car into a crowd. In addition, drug dealers have often been prosecuted with third-degree murder in Minnesota when one of their customers dies of an overdose.
Going by that interpretation of third-degree murder, Judge Peter Cahill, who is presiding over Chauvin’s trial, dismissed the charge in the fall and upheld the other charges.
But a recent decision by the Court of Appeals in a separate case appeared to reshape the interpretation of third-degree murder. Upholding a conviction of third-degree murder for Mohamed Noor, a former police officer who shot and killed a woman while on duty, the court determined that third-degree murder could be applied in a case in which the suspect’s actions were dangerous to a single person.
When prosecutors sought to reintroduce the third-degree murder charge in February, Cahill rejected their arguments, saying that he disagreed with the appeals court ruling and that it was not binding because the Minnesota Supreme Court could still overturn it.
An appeals court judge wrote in an 18-page decision Friday that Cahill had erred by saying he was not required to follow the precedent of the Noor case. The appeals panel of three judges ordered the lower court to reconsider the state’s motion to add back the third-degree murder charge and said Cahill could decide to hear additional arguments from Chauvin’s lawyer against the motion.
Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general, said in a statement that he agreed with the court’s decision and that prosecutors “look forward to presenting all charges to the jury.”
Opening statements in Chauvin’s trial were expected to begin March 29, after a weekslong jury selection process. City officials have erected security barriers around government buildings, and business owners have begun boarding up storefronts. The National Guard has also been deployed to secure the city and contain any protests the trial may provoke.
The death of Floyd, who gasped for air while Chauvin pressed him to the concrete with his knee outside of a convenience store, was captured on video from a bystander’s cellphone and prompted widespread protests in Minneapolis and cities and towns across the country. The episode began when a clerk at the convenience store in South Minneapolis called 911 and said Floyd had tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.
Three other officers who were seen in the video trying to arrest Floyd, two of whom were rookies, were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and are scheduled to go on trial in August. They were fired with Chauvin one day after Floyd’s death.
Just days after Floyd died, Chauvin agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder and go to prison for more than 10 years, but the plea deal was upended when it was rejected by William Barr, who was then the U.S. attorney general.
The federal government had been in talks to sign onto the plea deal so Chauvin would not face federal charges in the future. But Barr ultimately rejected the deal, in part because Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, was preparing to take over the case from the county prosecutor, and Barr wanted to let Ellison decide whether to negotiate a plea or take the case to trial.